Commission of Inquiry Report-Back on Mercury Waste


17 October 1997
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Meeting report


17 OCTOBER 1997


Venter Commission

Mr Scott, director of the Department of Environmental Affairs, reported that Magistrate Venter was given thousands of pages of evidence. As a result he was still busy compiling a report, which would probably be available by the end of the year. Ms Mahlangu, chairperson, commented that it sounded acceptable as the inquiry had been carrying on for two years. She wanted to know what could be done to speed up the process. Mr Scott replied that a legal advisor had been appointed. He did add that issues were very complex. A committee member asked Mr Scott how Magistrate Venter was being paid and whether there was a deadline for the submission of the report. Mr Scott replied that the Magistrate Venter was being paid his usual salary, no additional rate was paid for his work on the commission. The same applied for his staff. Regarding the latter part of the question, Mr Scott said that the magistrate was appointed through the president. Hence the president's office could place pressure on him. One member suggested an ultimatum be placed on the commission.

Davis Commission

Mr Crouch reported on the investigation into Thor chemicals and mercury waste. There was an investigation into how extremely hazardous waste chemicals came to be stockpiled at a chemical factory in Durban. He was asked to investigate the background and how to best get rid of the problem. Mr Crouch reported that the history of the stockpile went back to the 1970s when there was no regulation as to the importation and stockpiling of waste. An agreement was reached between AECI and Thor to supply a catalyst. AECI would return the waste and recycle the mercury content into more catalyst. However the Thor plant could not recycle all the waste, which led to stockpiling. Loose regulations and lack of enforcement of regulations led to the stockpiling increasing. Mr Crouch further commented about the two options for the disposal of the waste. The one option was the landfill option, which was not the best option due to the nature of the mercury. The alternative option was to improve the Thor plant to allow it to incinerate the waste and use the ash for landfill. He commented that chemicals were hazardous and more legislation was needed to safeguard public health. The Commission would now be investigating all companies involved in mercury processing. Hence it would still be approximately one year before the final report would be published.

The members then posed various questions to Mr Crouch. He responded to the question on the landfill option by saying that it was not considered the best option due to the volatile nature of the substance. Leaching into ground water could not be ruled out. However if the waste was incinerated and then put in landfill, the ash would be stable and no problems were envisaged. A member asked whether there would be a need to deal with the mercury problem in future. Mr Crouch answered by saying that mercury, if it remained in a certain form, was not dangerous. There was a new AECI plant that was an alternative to the mercury technology. Another member wanted to know if the present state of the mercury was in an acceptable condition. Mr Crouch answered that the mercury was stored in warehouses in dams, which was in accordance with international regulations. A member wanted to know who paid for the modification of the plant as well as the monitoring. He answered that Thor paid for the modification and the government paid for the monitoring.



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